The Staple Singers, Faith And Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, album review

Download: Uncloudy Day; This May Be The Last Time; I’ll Fly Away; The Challenge; Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom); Respect Yourself; I’ll Take You There

Andy Gill
Friday 01 January 2016 12:59

Before the Fifties created the teenager, thereby establishing the Generation Gap as a social norm rather than just a phase, the family was crucial to the development of recreational popular music.

It wasn’t just the Von Trapps that gathered together around the piano to sing the latest tunes, and the erosion of that artistic bond surely contributed to the atomisation of western society.

By contrast, family has always been a strong structural element of gospel music, but no gospel group transcended generations as successfully as The Staple Singers, founded by Roebuck “Pops” Staples when he got fed up with his own band not turning up to rehearse: instead, he taught his children “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – and wouldn’t you know it, among his brood shone a diamond talent in his youngest daughter Mavis, whose burnt-sienna tone equalled the soul power of the hardest belter in any classic male gospel quartet.

Complemented by Pops’ gentle, murmurous tenor, and her siblings’ harmonies, Mavis’s voice would become one of the signature sounds of the Sixties, as the group expanded their ambitions beyond the parochial church audience.

This four-CD set tracks their progress from stalwart gospellers doing rousing standards like “Swing Low” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”, through early experiments with drums, which tended to stilt the songs by accenting the offbeat, to the funk classics of the Seventies which represent the most satisfying incursions of gospel into pop.

Through most of the earlier period, however, their only accompaniment was Pops’ understated guitar, treated with heavy vibrato to give a charged rhythmic groove with a liquid, mesmeric quality that was light enough not to trample on their voices.

Most gospellers seeking wider acclaim took the secular route mapped out by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, who adapted sacred songs to secular ends. Almost uniquely, the Staples managed to crossover by instead expanding their righteous focus to fit the social requirements of the civil rights era.

After Pops met Martin Luther King, he was inspired to shift their style into what he called “Freedom Songs”, which incorporated protest anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” alongside their own tributes to the Freedom Riders and other protesters in songs such as “The Freedom Highway” and “Long Walk to DC”.

The result was the development of a racially mixed audience that enabled them to perform on much grander, national stages than previously, while being wooed by more powerful record companies.

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Their apotheosis, however, would come at the turn of the decade when they chose to sign with the innovative black-run Stax label, whose charismatic head Al Bell was determined to develop a broader roster of black music including blues, jazz and gospel.

With first Steve Cropper and then Bell himself handling production, the breakthrough was unexpected and spectacular, with euphoric hits like “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)”, the anthemic “Respect Yourself” and chart-topping “I’ll Take You There” just about managing to secure commercial success without sacrificing their moral message.

Mavis was once persuaded to sign for Prince’s Paisley Park label and currently nestles under the similarly protective production wing of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Neither man, I’m sure, could quite believe their luck; and this anthology explains exactly why.

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